Four myths about privacy

Many privacy discussions follow a similar pattern, and involve the same kinds of arguments. It’s commonplace to hear that privacy is dead, that people — especially kids — don’t care about privacy, that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, and that privacy is bad for business. “These claims are common, but they’re myths,” said Neil M. Richards, JD, privacy law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.”These privacy myths are not only false, they get in the way of the kind of important conversations we need to have about personal information in a digital age. If we continue to believe privacy myths, if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us.”Our understandings of privacy must evolve; we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.”In an article, “Four Privacy Myths,” available online via the Social Science Research Network, Richards explained why four of the most common privacy myths persist — and how we can avoid them. His arguments in brief:”First, privacy cannot be dead because it deals with the rules governing personal information; in an age of personal information, rules about how that information can flow will be more important than ever.Second, people (and young people) do care deeply about privacy, but they face limited choices and limited information about how to participate in the processing of their data.Third, privacy isn’t just for people with dark secrets; it’s for all of us. Not just because we all have things we’d prefer weren’t publicly broadcast, but more fundamentally because information is power and personal information is personal power.Finally, privacy is not always bad for business. One of the best hopes for meaningful privacy protection in the future is for businesses to compete on privacy, and there is some evidence that this is starting to happen.”Richards noted that clearing away the myths is an essential first step to talking about privacy in a helpful and constructive way.”It’s only when we clear away the myths that we can have the essential conversations we need to have about how personal information is shaping our society, now and in the future. …

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Promising biomarkers to predict suicide risk

In this Review, published to coincide with the launch of The Lancet Psychiatry journal, Professor Kees van Heeringen from Ghent University in Belgium and John Mann from Columbia University in the USA discuss the stress-diathesis theory of suicide, in which a predisposition or diathesis interacts with stressful life experiences and acute psychiatric illness to cause suicidal behavior. The theory explains why only a small minority of individuals are at risk of taking their own lives after exposure to such stressors.The authors discuss the causes of the diathesis, or predisposition, to suicidal behavior, which may include genetic effects and the long-term impact on the brain and behavior of early life adversity (eg, physical and sexual abuse). Additionally, they outline various neurobiological factors that may play a role in this predisposition to suicidal behavior. For example, post-mortem and neuroimaging studies have identified structural and functional changes in the brains of individuals with a history of suicidal behavior that may affect regulation of mood, response to stress and decision-making, and these include biochemical deficits in serotonin function and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) stress-response. The authors suggest that these abnormalities could be used in future to develop biomarkers that may help predict who is at risk of taking their own lives, and that may serve as a target for treatment.According to Professor van Heeringen, “Worldwide, over a million people each year die from suicide. Given that there are no reliable clinical tests to identify people who may be more predisposed to suicide, genetic and brain imaging biomarkers offer the most promising new directions for detecting high risk individuals and to identify more personalised treatments for preventing suicidal behavior.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by The Lancet. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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New insights into bacterial substitute for sex

Bacteria don’t have sex as such, but they can mix their genetic material by pulling in DNA from dead bacterial cells and inserting these into their own genome.New research led by Imperial College London has found that this process — called recombination — is more complex than was first thought. The findings, published today in PLoS Genetics, could help us understand why bacteria which cause serious diseases are able to evade vaccines and rapidly become drug-resistant.Dr Rafal Mostowy of Imperial College London’s School of Public Health explains: “During recombination, bacteria might incorporate new DNA which makes them resistant to treatments, or they may take on genes which change their surface structure, enabling them to evade vaccines. Although we’ve known for almost a century that recombination takes place, it’s only since DNA sequencing has become available that we have been able to determine how often this takes place and how significant the changes are.”Scientists from Imperial College London, Harvard School of Public Health and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute studied two ‘lineages’ of the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae (known as pneumococcus), one of which is resistant to drugs. Pneumococcusis one of the major causes of pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia; the World Health Organisation estimates that 1.1 million children under the age of five die each year of pneumonia alone.Using DNA sequences of bacteria strains collected over 36 years, Dr Mostowy and his colleagues were able to reconstruct an evolutionary tree for two ‘lineages’, mapping when new DNA had been taken on board and how the bacteria had evolved as a result. Although recombination has always been thought of as a uniform process, the models showed two distinct types of recombination — dubbed micro and macro.In ‘micro-recombination’, the bacteria regularly incorporate small amounts of DNA that make little difference to their genome. Although ‘macro-recombination’ takes place less frequently, it involves the bacteria taking on large amounts of DNA which make a significant change to the genome. It is this second process which the scientists believe enables the bacteria to change their appearance to evade vaccines or potentially take on resistance to drug treatments.The scientists found that recombination took place frequently in the evolution of the more resistant lineage they studied, and less frequently in the less resistant lineage. However, it was clear from the sequencing data that both strains had undergone micro- and macro-recombination.”This is a major step forward in our understanding of how recombination can result in bacteria evading vaccines and acquiring resistance to antibiotics,” says Dr Mostowy. “Currently we have effective means of preventing and treating pneumococcal disease, but it’s not clear how bacteria will respond in the long term.”Dr Nick Croucher, joint first author on the study, from Imperial’s School of Public Health, adds “This work shows that pneumococci can undergo potentially clinically important changes very quickly. Fortunately, whole genome sequencing, the technology that made this discovery possible, also holds great promise as a means of monitoring the emergence of these mutants in the future..”Professor Christophe Fraser, also from the School of Public Health at Imperial and senior author of the study, says: “As well as being important for public health, recombination in bacteria is biologically fascinating; the evolutionary purpose of absorbing DNA from dead and possibly only loosely related bacteria is mysterious. …

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Scientists recommend further research, delay in destruction of last stocks of smallpox

Variola, the virus that causes smallpox, is on the agenda of the upcoming meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization. The decision to be made is whether the last known remaining live strains of the virus should be destroyed. An international group of scientists led by Inger Damon, from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argue in an opinion piece published on May 1st in PLOS Pathogens that the WHA should not choose destruction, because crucial scientific questions remain unanswered and important public health goals unmet.Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, the only human pathogen for which successful eradication has been achieved to date. Since then, limited research focusing on diagnostic, antiviral and vaccine development, under close direction and oversight, has continued in two high-security laboratories–one in Russia and one in the US–the only places that are known still to have live variola strains. The justification for this research is that smallpox might re-appear via intentional release. Indeed, recent advances in synthetic biology make the possibility of re-creating the live virus from scratch more plausible.Summarizing the focus and the achievements of the research on live variola over the past several decades, the authors of the PLOS Pathogens article mention several new smallpox vaccines (the ones widely used prior to eradication would not meet today’s stricter safety standards for routine use) and two new drug candidates that, based on research so far, appear to be promising antivirals against the virus that causes smallpox. However, both of these drug candidates have not yet been licensed for use against the disease. “Despite these considerable advances, they argue that “the research agenda with live variola virus is not yet finished.”Discussing the significant remaining knowledge gaps, they highlight that while “variola is unusual in that it is known to be a sole human pathogen, the viral and host factors responsible for this human-specific tropism remain essentially unknown to this day” and argue that “greater exploitation of current technologies may lead to additional therapeutic or diagnostic products to better respond to any future emergency situation resulting from a smallpox appearance.” In light of published variola genome sequences and current capabilities of synthetic biology, they also question whether the ultimate destruction of the variola virus is actually feasible or meaningful.Overall, the authors conclude that research on live variola “remains vital” and “the original goals of the WHO agenda for newer and safer vaccines, fully licensed antiviral drugs, and better diagnostics have still not been fully met.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by PLOS. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Spinal cord neurons that control skilled limb movement identified

Researchers have identified two types of neurons that enable the spinal cord to control skilled forelimb movement. The first is a group of excitatory interneurons that are needed to make accurate and precise movements; the second is a group of inhibitory interneurons necessary for achieving smooth movement of the limbs. The findings are important steps toward understanding normal human motor function and potentially treating movement disorders that arise from injury or disease.”We take for granted many motor behaviors, such as catching a ball or flipping a coin, that in fact require considerable planning and precision,” said Columbia University Medical Center’s (CUMC’s) Thomas M. Jessell, PhD, a senior author of both studies, which were published separately in recent issues of Nature. “While such motor acts seem effortless, they depend on intricate and carefully orchestrated communication between neural networks that connect the brain to the spinal cord and muscles.”To move one’s hand to a desired target, the brain sends the spinal cord signals, which activate the motor neurons that control limb muscles. During subsequent movements, information from the limb is conveyed back to the brain and spinal cord, providing a feedback system that can support the control and adjustment of motor output.”But feedback from muscles is not quick enough to permit the most rapid real-time adjustments of fine motor control,” said Dr. Jessell, “suggesting that there may be other, faster, systems at play.” Dr. Jessell is the Claire Tow Professor of Motor Neuron Disorders in the Departments of Neuroscience and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, co-director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, all at Columbia.Researchers had suspected that one rapid form of feedback might derive from a group of interneurons in the cervical spinal cord called propriospinal neurons (PNs). Like many other neurons, PNs send signals to motor neurons that innervate arm muscles and trigger movement. …

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Age, general health, antidepressant use linked to eye disorders

Abnormal binocular vision, which involves the way eyes work together as a team, increases dramatically as we age, according to research from the University of Waterloo. The study also found a correlation between this condition, general health and antidepressant use.As many as 27 per cent of adults in their sixties have an actual binocular vision or eye movement disorder. That number rises to 38 per cent for those over age 80. About 20 per cent of the general population suffers from a binocular vision disorder, which affects depth perception and therefore may increase the risk of falls.Dr. Susan Leat, a professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at Waterloo led the study, which looked at randomly selected records from 500 older patients over age 60 who received treatment at the school’s on-campus clinic.”Thirty to 40 per cent of the population is an exceptionally high rate of incidence for any disorder,” said Dr. Leat.This is the first study to quantify binocular vision loss with age and show a connection with antidepressant use and general health. Conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disease are known to cause such problems, but this is the first study to link binocular vision disorders with overall general health. Similarly other writers have discussed a possible association between certain antidepressant drugs and specific binocular vision disorders, but this is the first study to actually demonstrate a link between antidepressant use and binocular vision and eye movement disorders.”An association does not establish that one causes the other, but rather that they co-exist,” said Dr. Leat. “It is possible that the effects of poor vision mean that people are more likely to take anti-depressants or make less healthy lifestyle choices.”Although the study suggests that the rate of binocular vision disorders in older adults is higher than expected, there is good news. …

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For some, money will not buy happiness: Neither life experiences nor material items make materialistic shoppers happier

Many shoppers, whether they buy material items or life experiences, are no happier following the purchase than they were before, according to a new study from San Francisco State University.Although previous research has shown experiences create greater happiness for buyers, the study suggests that certain material buyers — those who tend to purchase material goods — may be an exception to this rule. The study is detailed in an article to be published in the June edition of the Journal of Research in Personality.”Everyone has been told if you spend your money on life experiences, it will make you happier, but we found that isn’t always the case,” said Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at SF State and co-author of the study. “Extremely material buyers, who represent about a third of the overall population, are sort of stuck. They’re not really happy with either purchase.”Researchers found that when material buyers purchase life experiences, they are no happier because the purchase is likely out of line with their personality and values. But if they spend on material items, they are not better off either, because others may criticize or look down upon their choices.”I’m a baseball fan. If you tell me, ‘Go spend money on a life experience,’ and I buy tickets to a baseball game, that would be authentic to who I am, and it will probably make me happy,” Howell said. “On the other hand, I’m not a big museum guy. If I bought tickets to an art museum, I would be spending money on a life experience that seems like it would be the right choice, but because it’s not true to my personality, I’m not going to be any happier as a result.”Although the link between experiential purchases and happiness had been well demonstrated, Howell said few studies have examined the types of people who experience no benefits. To do so, he and his colleagues surveyed shoppers to find out if there were any factors that limited the happiness boost from experiential purchases. The researchers found that those who tend to spend money on material items reported no happiness boost from experiential purchases because those purchases did not give them an increased sense of “identity expression” — the belief that they bought something that reflected their personality.”The results show it is not correct to say to everyone, ‘If you spend money on life experiences you’ll be happier,’ because you need to take into account the values of the buyer,” said Jia Wei Zhang, the lead author of the study and a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley who conducted the research with Howell while an undergraduate at SF State.Reasons someone may buy a life experience that doesn’t reflect his or her personality include a desire to fit in or spend time with others, according to Zhang. …

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